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Stand Your Ground: How Strong Character Improves Safety and Reliability

March 12, 2019
Tom Cohenno and Jeff White from Applied Learning Science explore a new mindset for improved safety and reliability.

We have far too many fatalities, injuries and unintended outages each year.  If we accept this low level of performance, then we don’t need to keep at the task of finding new solutions. If we don’t accept this level of performance, then we must keep searching for ways to keep our employees safe and our systems reliably running.

Jeff and I, along with many others who will lead and attend the NERC HP Conference on March 26-28, have decided not to accept low-level performance. In this article, we explore how to improve safety and reliability in performance through a new perspective on character.

We’ve studied numerous organizations and industries, and we believe they can frame continued discussions around utility safety and system reliability. It is not just about more rules or procedures, and it is more fundamental than the role of discipline. It has the potential to inspire and become an industry-wide norm.

So, what is this next step to improve safety and reliability?

Before we share our hypothesis, it is important to note that we believe the environment plays a dominant role in continued injuries and inadvertent events. Executives, managers and supervisors must design the system and shape the work environment to be as safe as possible. Blame, should we use that term, starts at the top. 

 The opportunity we would like to explore, however, is related to how the worker interacts within the environment or system on any given day. In short, we propose a new way of thinking about our responsibility for our own safety. We need to address our decision-making capacity and the decision-making capacities of our teammates. Although we recognize that the environment can muddle our thinking, we can, when accurately anticipated:

  •  Train ourselves to achieve clear thinking by overriding unhelpful emotional reactions
  • Ignore mental distractions
  • Proactively detect system traps 

We believe the single most important component of working safely is a craftsman or a professional with his or her mind on the job, accurately reading the environment and taking the necessary steps to ensure safety and system reliability. While the company is responsible for constantly managing the environment (in fact, we dream of the day when this simple recognition is universally held by all who are in the position to influence others), each one of us has the right and the obligation to read the environment and challenge the system when it is unsafe. Why?  Because as long as we are free to accept or reject employment at our organization, we have an equal responsibility to ourselves, our families and our colleagues to determine if the working conditions are safe and lead to greater system reliability.  Executives, Managers, and Supervisors, no matter how well meaning, are also fallible.  The system can never be perfect.  No system is utterly foolproof, and no environment remains static.  In fact, system adjustments intended to improve safety often introduce unintended consequences.  Vigilance is key.

A look at other industries is instructive.  How does a Major League Baseball player stand in left field and remain completely attentive at all times?  How does he cope with taunts and verbal abuse?  We believe it is because there is a clear expectation that he will do so and there are severe personal consequences if he does not.  In our case, however, there is a big difference between an inadvertent in-the-park homerun and a fatal injury.  But, more importantly, beyond expectation and consequence, there is a desire to win the game.  That desire mitigates boredom, that desire drives practice, and that desire drives fitness.  Playing in the “Bigs” is an honor and special privilege, a unique opportunity, and critically, each player does not want to let down their team.  Hardship, challenge, and esteem derived from participation are powerful motivators.  And, lest we think it is the millions of dollars in salary that is the true motivation, then how would one explain the thousands of men who attempt to complete Navy SEAL training?  We would argue that it is in part the opportunity to be in a special “league,” to uphold a challenging code of behavior, and to be motivated by team participation.

This brings us to the utility industry and the NERC Conference. We all have favorite ballplayers and read of SEALs who exhibit character that we appreciate. What character attributes should we have in the utility industry? What esteem do we have from full, professional participation? At first glance, you might think that this doesn’t apply to us, but take a moment and think about two key points. First, we decided our current level of performance is not okay, therefore we need to keep trying to improve. Second, there are qualitative differences that define how we approach work. We all know that top-flight engineer, that highly respected foreman, or the operator who knows the system and switching process backwards and forwards.  What accounts for that difference?  Why do some seek and achieve true mastery? 

We believe the difference is character.  At the conference, we will define character differently than what may immediately jump to mind. We’re talking about Strength of Character.  By this, we mean that one has deliberately cultivated essential habits and ways of thinking to land on accurate decisions when the pressure is on, when the environment is confusing, and when the current processes or procedures are no longer accurate.  It is akin to using the GPS AFTER one has already established the route.

At the conference, we will discuss the essential attributes of character necessary for safe utility work, the role that true mastery plays for us personally and the impact it has on those around us. We will collectively explore how to learn how to detect, create and establish a personal code of honor, either written or unwritten. We will then brainstorm how a larger utility-focused code can be derived and deployed industry-wide. We believe it is essential to equip those on our teams with a personal code that guides and informs, even when under pressure.  As someone once shared, “We never rise to the occasion. We sink to our level of training.” 

It would seem obvious that this deserves our attention, but it is an approach we rarely discuss. Why?  Because it is seemingly too hard. We would argue that it is not as hard as death, which as we stated occurs too often. It feels too elusive, too mushy and too soft for others in the company to consider. However, highly successful organizations make this an ongoing priority, including the SEALS, the Marines, hospital surgical rooms, nuclear power plants and professional athletes. Immediate feedback and severe consequences make clear that focusing on character and culture is not optional. 

Taking full personal responsibility for our safety is truly difficult but essential if we want to continue to improve. And, full responsibility means investigating those areas that we might want to label as irrelevant. 

We invite you to join us at our workshops and participate in collaborating to improve safety and reliability and discuss the unique relationship to Character Strengths and the opportunity for improvement.  We will continue to provide the industry our findings and share them in our next article.

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